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Paperwork and Meringues

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If one asked on which occasion Clint Barton and Melinda May have met, most people at SHIELD would answer that it must have been during a mission. Then, again, most people at SHIELD would be surprised to hear that Barton and May even know each other. Or not so surprised, maybe – we are, after all, talking about one of the most talented specialists SHIELD has ever had and the person who was once known as the Cavalry. When you think about it, it’s only likely that the two of them have worked together in the field, probably more than once. Many of the younger agents would be eager to hear tales of those missions, if only for the sheer level of badassery that must have been involved.

All this just tells you that not many people at SHIELD can be bothered to remember the fact that Clint Barton was recruited later in his life than the average agent and in a not entirely orthodox way, so that, by the time he started operating in the field, Agent May was already working on higher-level operations – too high to allow a freshly recruited sniper with a shady past to take part in any of them, no matter that his skills with a bow could only be described as uncanny.

Which leads us to the fact that Specialist Agent Barton didn’t meet Agent May during a field mission. In fact, Specialist Agent Barton, Level 3, met Melinda May, of SHIELD HR department, about a week after the latter failed to forward a Form 42-97B to the appropriate office. This rather peculiar piece of information is known to no more than three people at SHIELD, beside Barton and May, of course – two now, to be exact, since one of said informed people has recently been killed by a semi-deranged Norse deity.

***

No one had asked May to actually read the 42-97B when Agent Roentgen had dropped it rather unceremoniously on her desk. She was only supposed to check if it had been correctly compiled in all of its parts before filing it. Instead, she’d skimmed through it. Then read it. Then she’d switched her computer on and pulled up the mission reports from Roentgen’s latest op (which, she soon found out, was quickly going to become Roentgen’s last op, if she had any say in the matter). Then she’d rerouted the 42-97B to Agent Coulson’s office.

For those not familiar with the classification system for SHIELD paperwork, form 42-97B is an Asset Termination Agreement – “agreement” being a rather transparent euphemism for something else that would imply a higher degree of responsibility. And sure, Roentgen’s op in Manila had gone FUBAR and led to one agent dying and two more being left in critical conditions, but to Melinda it didn’t look like Barton’s well-known attitude towards insubordination was the cause for that. No, what it looked like was that Roentgen had filed an ATA just to cover for some idiotic (criminal, that’s the adjective you use when agents get killed) mistake of his. A mistake that wasn’t even in Barton’s report, and well, didn’t that say spectacularly bad things about a handler-asset relationship.

Problem was, with Barton’s track record of pulling stupid stunts and questioning orders – in one memorable case, Fury’s own –, it was highly likely that the suggestion to terminate his collaboration with SHIELD would be taken seriously if Melinda filed it.

Terminating an agent’s collaboration with SHIELD is, of course, another rather transparent euphemism for the most common outcome of a 42-97B.

So Melinda did the only sensible thing (or what she would claim was the only sensible thing if anyone ever confronted her with the facts): she didn’t file the 42-97B. Instead, she forwarded it to Agent Coulson’s office. Two hours later, she received a filled Form 157-45 (Asset Reassignment Request), along with a 78-14D (Disciplinary Transfer Procedure). Those, she filed to the correct office. She put the bright orange post-it note (which read Told you you’d make a good handler in a spiky scrawl) away in the top drawer, along with the others. After all, Melinda May knew how to do her job.

(It must be said, for the record, that Barton’s case wasn’t the first time May had “accidentally” misfiled an ATA. It was the second. But no one talks about the first time, nor about Fury’s reaction when he received both Senior Agent Henry’s 42-97B and the 51-866 which had been filed against him just a few hours before – a 51-866 being a Sexual Harassment Complaint. No one knows how the forms got mixed up with the Director’s personal post, but rumor has it that Agent Henry mysteriously disappeared while in deep cover somewhere in Asia a couple of months later. As for the junior agent who’d submitted the 51-866, she isn’t a junior anymore, and she’d be extremely displeased to find out that the rumor has leaked. Getting on Maria Hill’s bad side is about as recommended as getting on Fury’s.)

***

The first time Clint Barton entered Agent Coulson’s office was anything but memorable. Sure, it made him think for the first time about how nice it would be to work with someone who answered his snarky comments with deadpan lines instead of raising his hackles as soon as Clint opened his mouth. He didn’t fool himself into believing it would last, of course. Coulson was, after all, well known for his track record of not keeping agents under his supervision for longer than a few months. After that, they either moved up the ranks fast or got reassigned. Everyone at SHIELD was aware that Agent Coulson wasn’t easily pleased, or a people person in any sense of the word. Some liked to say he wasn’t a person at all, that he was some kind of robot or lab-grown experiment. None of his former assets ever complained about his handling, however, so Clint hadn’t reacted badly to the news that he was being reassigned to him. Honestly, considering how his last mission with Roentgen had gone, he’d been expecting worse. (And if the unexpected change in plans had made him suspicious as hell, it sure wasn’t anyone’s business, at least for now.)

So Clint definitely wasn’t disappointed when Coulson acted nothing but professional during their first meeting, keeping his questions and answers so sparse and dry that it was a wonder they even managed a conversation at all. He wasn’t even surprised when Coulson didn’t as much as rise an eyebrow at some of Clint’s most inappropriate remarks (see under: deadpan). It was too early to be forming an opinion, and anyway, Clint still had no reason to believe he was going to have much time to do that. He’d be working with Coulson for a while, long enough for him to be molded into whatever SHIELD wanted him to be or break, and then he’d be let go either way. That was, according to what everyone knew and said, Agent Coulson’s modus operandi.

Clint was, however, momentarily taken aback when Coulson’s voice stopped him on the threshold right as he was leaving.

“Ah, and Barton.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Agent Melinda May loves meringues.”

Clint definitely didn’t gape at that. His training put him above this kind of things, of course it did. Nor did he let himself show surprise at the fact that Coulson apparently knew about his unlikely talent for baking, or his mostly requited love for the more delicate recipes. He did, however, set himself up for a bit of research about Agent May. He had, after all, been given a name, and it was just fair to assume there was some reason behind that. If said research led him to find out about Agent Roentgen’s “emergency” transfer to an administrative post in Ohio, and to track the movements of a certain form 42-97B, well, it couldn’t be said it was Coulson’s fault. Nor was Coulson in any way responsible for the fact that the following Wednesday saw Agent Barton showing up at the door of a certain office in HR, carrying a plate which held half a dozen crisp and perfectly formed Italian meringues.

***

Melinda May was not the kind of person who easily accepted thanks. Which was good, since apparently Agent Barton was not the kind of person who easily gave them. Still, even though Barton hadn’t said anything as he delicately set the plate on her desk, she found herself knocking at Phil’s office door not an hour later, still battling an irritating sense of uneasiness.

“You sent him to me.”

“I may or may not have dropped a hint about your name, yes.” Phil hadn’t even looked up from his computer. His lips, however, were barely but sensibly twitching up.

“Did he ask for it?”

“I may or may not have taken the initiative.”

“You may or may not be an asshole.” Melinda knew he could see her roll her eyes even though it didn’t look like he was watching.

“Were the meringues good?”

May sighed, her mouth watering at the very memory. “Heavenly.”

“Well, isn’t that interesting.” Coulson quirked an eyebrow at something that definitely didn’t have to do with whatever mission plan was on his screen, no matter how intently he pretended to stare at it.

“You’re planning to keep him, aren’t you.”

“I may or may not.”

“Is this whole conversation a pun on my name? Because if it is, it’s awful.”

Now, that startled Phil into looking up. Satisfying. Coulson – May, 0 – 1. “You know, I don’t think I’ve witnessed such an astounding amount of sass from you since Bahrain, at least.” Never mind, Coulson wins. Again.

“Oh, fuck you, Phil.”

“Yes.”

“Hello, inappropriate answer.”

Phil huffed, and May really had to warn him about how endearing he looked when he did that. Just, maybe not today. “Yes, I’m planning to keep him. Wasn’t that what your whole scheme was about?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“This depends on whether he still wishes to be kept two months from now.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to rub it in your face either way.”

“Thanks, Mel. You’re an angel, Mel. Bye, Mel.”

“Don’t you ever call me that.”

***

Clint Barton hadn’t planned for a repeat of his meringue-giving performance. The fact that he found himself outside the HR department two weeks after that first Wednesday had nothing to do with how Agent May hadn’t said a word when he’d brought the first plate in, or how she’d barely looked at him at all. Whatever his file might say about his personality, Clint isn’t the type who needs constant recognition for his actions. Well, not in the meringue department, at least.

So, the fact that Clint is here, hesitating for a whole thirty seconds before entering the range of the motion sensor for May’s (and a couple of other agents’) office door, has nothing to do with needing recognition and everything to do with Coulson. Rather unlike the first time he came to this place.

It’s not like he’s feeling any sort of special connection to his handler, of course. Three weeks and a mission into their partnership is far too early for that, even if Coulson’s voice was the perfect shade of steady and, on occasion, stern in his earpiece, and he gave Clint full information on the target and the reasons why they’d decided she needed to be taken down before sending him in. That was merely Coulson being good at his job, which is the one thing Clint had been expecting from the start.

And yet.

The fact is that, you see, Coulson likes coffee. A lot. Seriously, the man has a relationship with coffee that borders on inappropriate and then some. And Clint isn’t supposed to pay attention to this kind of things, he really isn’t, but he does – he does it with everyone, really, so it’s not like Coulson’s special. After all, a sniper’s eyes and memory are good for more than one thing, and if Clint likes being kind to the people he works with, even though most of them will still be convinced that he’s just a mouthy asshole, so sue him. All thing considered, it wasn’t really anything unusual for Clint to end up bringing Coulson coffee, and anyway, he did it just one time, one day when it was already dark and he was about to go home for the evening when he noticed that his handler was still working.

Okay, so maybe it was a bit early into their partnership for Clint to do that kind of things. Like noticing that his handler considered coffee a treat after a long day, or worrying about Coulson’s unhealthy definition of working hours. And maybe he’d also made a little extra effort and gone outside to that awfully upscale little coffee shop Coulson liked to buy him a ridiculously posh brew. He’d just wanted to be nice, so sue him again – and besides, the higher level agents had to be used to drinking better stuff than the sludge from the Level 4 break room anyway.

So, Clint was pretty sure that none of his actions had warranted the look in Coulson’s eyes when he’d left the to-go cup on his handler’s desk. But there had definitely been an odd look on his face for a split second, which was more than enough for Clint to see it – again, perks of being sharp-sighted and practiced at noticing fleeting movement, he guessed. Anyway, Coulson had looked surprised, like a person who’d never expected anyone in the world to bring him coffee. There was no other way to understand that face, honestly, and Clint didn’t really want to dwell on how funny it had made his insides feel. Instead, he found himself wondering where he’d seen the same look recently. And the answer, of course, was on Melinda May’s face two weeks before, as she’d picked up a meringue, sniffed it delicately and bit into it, somehow managing not to send feather-light white crumbles flying everywhere.

So Clint had gone home, baked a fresh batch of meringues, and now he was stepping into an office in the HR department and hoping he didn’t look as much like a fish out of water as he felt.

***

“You know, I might just get used to this.” May’s voice was surprisingly nice. A bit flat and rough around the edges, sure, but warm. It reminded him of Coulson. And yes, Clint liked Coulson’s voice. Which was perfectly understandable. The man did have a really nice voice. Clint could bet that everyone who’d had him in his earpiece for a few hours would share his opinion on that. There was nothing inappropriate in thinking about Coulson’s voice. Nothing at all. No reason to suspect that Clint was getting attached.

Anyway, back to the here and now. Conversation. With Melinda May. Easy. “I don’t think I can promise to keep the deliveries on schedule, though.”

“This is the HR department, Agent Barton. Nothing’s ever on schedule here. These are exceptional, by the way.” God, she’s making small talk. Why is she making small talk? Dammit, Clint, get a grip.

“Thanks. Do you bake?”

May cocked a fascinatingly sharp eyebrow at him. “Do I look like I bake?”

“Do I?”

May smiled. Clint guessed it wasn’t supposed to be scary. It was.

“You know,” she said, her tone veering on conversational again, “rumor has it that Coulson has no talent for cooking whatsoever.”

“Rumor?” Not that Clint was interested. Nope.

Melinda’s lips twitched. Another Coulsonesque trait. Not that Clint had noticed the way Coulson’s lips moved. Or, well, he had, but then again, he noticed random things all the time. Good eyes, remember? Nothing unusual here.

“He can burn water. Literally. He did. I was there.”

There had been, of course, a substantial amount of potassium involved. How that had ended up into the salt tin, and where the hell Coulson had gotten the idea that you needed to put that much salt in the water to make pasta, or that said salt was supposed to have such a metallic hue – all those things made for quite an entertaining story, as Clint soon found out.

And if at the end Clint found himself going silently awww over Agent Coulson’s unexpected second nature as a giant dork who couldn’t cook for his dear life, well, that just meant he had a new-found soft spot for giant dorks who couldn’t cook. It didn’t have to mean he had a soft spot for his handler in particular. Not at all.

Of course Clint Barton knew that this kind of denial could only go that far. He was merely opting not to dwell on that thought for the time being. He was, all things considered, doing pretty well.

***

So, not many people at SHIELD are aware that every other Wednesday Specialist Agent Barton, now Level 7, drops by Agent Melinda May’s office in the HR department. Unless he’s out on a mission, of course, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Only a third person, beside the two parties involved, knows the contents of the plate that Barton never fails to carry. May’s cubicle is secluded enough from the rest of the room that no one sees the meringues, and she always makes sure to wipe out any remaining evidence, in the form of crumbs or otherwise.

When said third informed person dies at the hand of a Norse sort-of-god with a horned helmet and a frankly disturbing amount of family issues, May doesn’t really expect the tradition to carry on. Phil Coulson’s death has changed many things.

Still, when Clint shows up on the first Wednesday after he’s been cleared from Medical with half a dozen meringues on a platter and an unreadable expression on his face, Melinda doesn’t say anything beside, “The texture’s different.”

“I know. New oven.” Clint’s voice is opaque, just like his face. “I’ve moved recently. It’s good, but – still getting used to it.”

She knows that he’s moved, of course. She filed the paperwork for that. The fact that seeing Coulson’s name beside Barton’s on the old lease brought tears to her eyes, even though she’d known it was going to be there, is not something she needs to share with anyone. “It’s not that I don’t like it. The new texture, I mean. It’s just –”

“Less heavenly than the first time?” A ghost of a smile. They must both look like ghosts, after what happened, she guesses.

I hope you knew what you were doing to us when you chose to play the hero, Phil.

Melinda May is not the kind of person to easily give comfort. Which is good, since Clint Barton is not the kind of person to easily accept it. The meringues get back to their usual, heavenly texture after a couple of experiments.

Chapter Text

One of the lesser-known benefits of having a sniper’s eyes – or, at least, Clint Barton’s eyes, which, he has it on good authority, are admittedly better than the average sniper’s – is that your focus isn’t just unwaveringly sharp and clearer from a distance, but also a lot quicker than any other person’s. That is, you learn to pinpoint moving objects very fast, and, in Clint’s case, you are able to remember any detail of a scene after seeing it for a mere fraction of a second.

The first time this had come up in an assessment of Clint’s abilities, Phil had said he had an eidetic memory. Clint had protested the notion, initially, because an eidetic memory was a thing for geniuses, people like the young Scottish engineer in R&D who could draw the most intricate of machines after having had just the briefest look at it. And it didn’t matter how high Clint’s scores at the Academy or the praise on his second PhD dissertation had been, he was still no genius in any sense of the word. Phil had given him an odd look when he’d said that. Clint didn’t like being on that side of Phil’s odd looks, so he’d dropped the subject.

In the end, Clint had stopped arguing about the specifics and gone back to focusing on the advantages that his eyes gave him in the field. After all, he wouldn’t have been able to corner the Black Widow without hurting her if he hadn’t remembered exactly where the last shards of porcelain from Phil’s incident with the tea set the day before were lying.

Anyway, all this means that when he enters May’s office and spots the file she’s poring over – the one that’s definitely not a personnel file, or any of her usual HR stuff –, it doesn’t really help much that she snatches it away as quickly as she can and slips it into her desk drawer (the drawer in which she kept Phil’s post-it notes, the cheesy, brightly-colored ones that aren’t coming anymore, and fuck, the thought hurts, the thought still hurts every time it hits him). Sure, she’s got impressively quick reflexes – better than anyone else at SHIELD beside Natasha, if he’s honest –, but Clint has already had plenty of time to notice that May was looking at the specs for the internal layout of a plane.

Which would be unusual enough to unsettle him, these days, even if it wasn’t for the fact that Melinda clearly wanted him to see it.

Because Melinda knows pretty much everything about Clint’s eyes and what they can do. She’d taken full advantage of his abilities just a few months after the beginning of their meringue-based partnership, when she’d absent-mindedly left a certain handler’s file on her desk just to quickly snatch it away as soon as Clint crossed the threshold. Phil’s file had been more than half covered by a folder, of course, but Clint had been able to catch a good glimpse of the date of birth – and even though he’d really have appreciated being given more than a week’s warning to get him a present (because you don’t just find a good Captain America travel mug anywhere on the internet, or, at least, the good ones weren’t as common as they became after Steve Rogers was retrieved from the ice, despite what people nowadays might think), he’d made sure to thank May by adding a strawberry and coconut cupcake to his next delivery of sweets.

So, Clint thinks he’s safe to assume that May expected him to see the plane specs. Which just leaves it up to him to figure out why, because Melinda doesn’t look like she’s going to help. Considering Clint’s current position at SHIELD, even though a year has passed since the Battle of New York, the archer can’t really blame her for being extra careful in slipping him information about anything.

Now, if he could just have an idea of what this specific case of anything is about.

***

The plane specs are still on May’s desk two weeks later. This time, Clint gets a good look (that is, a half-second glimpse) at the layout before the wad of papers disappears. Apparently, SHIELD’s new 616 aircraft can take off vertically, and is equipped to carry a team of six agents. Judging from the number of various accessories in the living quarters, said agents are meant to spend a lot of time on the plane.

Which means that the 616 was built (or is going to be built – after all, Clint didn’t get any information about what stage the project is at) with a mobile team in mind. It shouldn’t be surprising. A first-response unit of this kind had been on Fury’s mind for a long time, before the Avengers Initiative took priority over everything else.

It had been on Phil’s mind for a long time. It was Phil’s idea.

Clint is suddenly, irrationally angry at Fury for stealing Phil’s project now that Phil is dead. Not that he can do anything about it. He can, however, do his best to try and understand why May thought he needed to see the specs for the new plane, and why she’s obviously taking pains not to let anyone know he’s been informed.

***

Clint ponders about what he saw for the next two weeks, which end up turning into three, courtesy of a mutant mini-kraken attack in Portland. Because apparently this kind of things is his routine now. It doesn’t help that the Avengers get shipped out to Portland, of all places, or that Sitwell discreetly slips Clint a ticket for the Oregon Symphony as soon as the fight ends and takes care to inform everyone that they aren’t going to leave until the next morning.

He goes to the concert, pointedly avoids looking at the cello section, and pretends that the persistent stinging in his eyes is due to the music. After all, no one could deny that Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is hauntingly sad. He debates going to say hello to Audrey after the performance. He’s almost decided against it when she settles the debate by catching up with him in the foyer. This kind of no-nonsense attitude had been one of the reasons why Clint had liked her immediately, all the way back when Phil introduced them. She doesn’t hug him, doesn’t ask how he’s doing, just thanks him for coming and takes his hand in hers for a moment. Her grip is steady, palms dry and callused from the cello, just as he remembered them from their first meeting.

At their first meeting, Phil was there, his smile so bright (and, honestly, just this side of goofy) that Clint couldn’t stop staring, even if he knew it was going to make him feel even more embarrassed. When Audrey had asked why he looked so much like the happy idiot he was (see? No nonsense. He liked her), Phil had answered that it was because one didn’t often get to see their boyfriend and long-distance best friend get along so well together.

When Clint gets back to the hotel Sitwell has picked for the Avengers’ night in town, Natasha is waiting in his room. He slips into her hug without even a token resistance, and after a while he stops pretending that he isn’t crying.

***

Anyway, Clint is just one Wednesday late for his next meringue appointment with May. As soon as he rounds the corner of Melinda’s cubicle, a thick wad of papers disappears from her desk.

This time, Clint almost doesn’t get to look at it long enough to realize what it is. Admittedly, a list of SHIELD’s R&D personnel isn’t that unusual a thing for Melinda to work on. Okay, maybe a little. Maybe the fact that she was marking names in blue highlighter should give him some clues about what’s going on.

Clint makes small talk, cracks a couple of jokes about Sitwell’s complicated relationship with seafood (especially when said seafood is the size of a small submarine and has swum all the way up the Columbia river just to try and crush him with a tentacle, or so Jasper said, at least), waits for Melinda to finish polishing off the meringues, and goes back to the Tower to think.

Not that it is especially hard to figure out what’s going on. Melinda May has the specs for a plane and is working on a list of crew members. Melinda May is helping start a team.

***

Melinda May looks unusually frustrated when, two weeks later, she hides the same wad of papers with the names from R&D. Clint can see that she’s started crossing out candidates. Too many of them, he guesses, judging from the fact that all the four names she’d highlighted on the front page now have a big fat NO scrawled at their side (in lime green permanent marker – classy). Not even Clint’s special delivery of meringues dipped in dark chocolate manages to cheer her up entirely.

“I broke my bow last week,” Clint says conversationally, leaning against her desk.

“Must have hurt.” By now, Clint knows when Melinda is teasing him. Most of the time. Right now, she isn’t teasing. She knows how much Clint values his bow.

If her deadpan tone is a little too close to the one Phil used for comfort, well, Clint supposes it’s no one else’s problem but his own. Certainly not Melinda’s. She needs the reminder about as much as he does, after all.

“Yep.” He makes the p pop in that annoying way of his, to cover for the way he has to swallow around the sudden lump in his throat. “Didn’t last long, though. R&D did an excellent job of fixing it, for once. FitzSimmons even gave me new arrow prototypes as compensation.”

May raises an eyebrow. “There’s no Fitzsimmons in R&D.”

“Sure there is. And they’re damn good, too. Best prototype arrows I’ve ever had. Said it was the least they could do, but I think they’re just having too much fun designing them. Those two are a menace. I hope no one is ever so stupid to think they can take them apart.”

May hums, and shifts the conversation to the merits of dark versus milk chocolate ganache.

***

Two weeks later, two filled forms with Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons’ names on top disappear from Melinda’s desk as soon as Clint walks in. The next time he manages to visit – after four weeks and a mission in Myanmar that turned out to be a complete clusterfuck about ten minutes from the start –, it’s the turn of a freshly-filed 68-13D, and Clint finds himself wondering why, exactly, Grant Ward’s advancement from Level 6 to 7 should concern him.

Except from the fact that Hill signed that form. Which means that she was the one who vetted Ward. Maria Hill doesn’t waste her time managing this kind of things since she was promoted Deputy Director, at least.

It makes sense, after all. It’s Fury’s pet project (which he stole from Phil, and Clint doesn’t think he can get over that anytime soon, to be honest). It’s just reasonable that he wants only people he trusts to work on it – people like Maria, or Melinda, for that matter. Still, Hill being responsible for a field team doesn’t make sense – it’s extremely unlikely that Fury will agree to send her away from HQ, and with an experimental mobile first-response unit, no less.

Which just leaves Clint with three questions. One, what the hell is a team with a specialist and two genius technicians supposed to do. Two, why does May ostensibly think he should be concerned about all this – especially since by calling Ward they’ve just ruled out the most obvious explanation, that Clint was going to be directly involved.

The third question is who will be the man in charge.

***

The uneasy feeling in Clint’s stomach coalesces into an ugly lump of dread and anger and irrational hope two weeks later, when the form that May hides from his view is no less than her own A6-121. It’s already stamped with Fury’s personal seal of approval.

May is transferring back into the field. As a pilot, no less.

May wouldn’t go back into the field for just anyone. Not even if she got a whole new aircraft to play with. Not even when said aircraft is a huge jet that can take off vertically.

There’s just one person Melinda May would go back into the field for. Which is why said person never asked her to do that – because he knew she’d say yes, even if it was going to hurt her.

Said person has been dead for the last fifteen months.

Clint refuses to believe what his mind is telling him. He leaves May’s office as soon as he can, and all but runs to the range. Nat has to come get him at three in the morning. She doesn’t ask.

Clint doesn’t tell her anything. If he’s wrong, he can at least spare her the pain of hoping. He can’t not be wrong. This kind of things just doesn’t happen, not even in their lives.

For two weeks, he burns most of his energies trying to compartmentalize. It’s a hopeless struggle, he knows. Even Tony ends up asking him if anything’s wrong. He manages to shrug it off, but it’s a near thing. Natasha knows he’s on to something, but she trusts him enough that she doesn't pry. Clint loves her very much.

***

He misses his next Wednesday appointment again, because of another emergency in Chicago. This time, however, he doesn’t wait for a week. He drops by May’s office on Thursday afternoon, trying to keep the murderous expression off his face. He has a feeling he’s failing. He gets confirmation when Melinda’s lips quirk upwards as soon as she sees him. Then she shuffles the stack of papers on her desk just so.

The form that peeks out from the bottom of the stack is a 42-14E. Clint knows what that is, because he had to file one of those once, after an undercover mission had gone horribly wrong and he’d had to let everyone believe he’d been made out and killed for six whole weeks.

In retrospect, Phil’s face when he’d got back had been the last thing Clint needed to put his own feelings together. Then Phil had slapped the 42-14E in front of him and said, “It takes a lot of paperwork to bring an agent back from the dead, Barton. Which is why I’d very much prefer if my agents didn’t die in the first place.” He’d almost managed to make his voice sound like his usual post-mission ennui as he spoke. Also, his complaints about paperwork might have been more believable if a 42-14E wasn’t actually the only form required in order to rectify the registered death of an agent. And didn’t it say interesting things about life at SHIELD that they didn’t have a simple and straightforward procedure to request new arrows from R&D, but they did have one to efficiently reinstate agents who came back from the dead.

Still, Clint is pretty sure that the above-mentioned form 42-14E is not supposed to show up fifteen months after the date of the agent’s death that’s stamped on the first line, and the name written under that line definitely isn’t supposed to end in -LSON.

And yet, it does.

If Clint doesn’t drop the plate with the meringues, it’s only because May locks eyes with him as she efficiently rights up the stack of forms. Her gaze says no, and dangerous, and, somehow, I trust you not to make a mess of this, Clint Barton. It’s the same gaze that Clint has seen in Phil’s eyes so many times during a mission. He’s never been able not to comply.

“Thanks,” Melinda says as she bites into the first meringue. “I’m glad you came. I’ll, ah, admit I was a bit disappointed when you didn’t show up yesterday.”

Clint is honestly surprised that he still has a voice to speak with, even if it comes out unsteady. “Sorry. Pink alien cats attacked.” Well, they’d looked like cats, at least. “Perils of the job.”

“I guess. Anyway, you wouldn’t have found me here next Wednesday. We – I’m leaving in five days.”

“Congratulations,” Clint says. May smiles. There’s a smudge of sugary powder at the corner of her lips. “Melinda?”

May looks up. They both know that Clint never calls her by her first name out loud, just as she never uses his. First names are a thing for Coulson only, and in Clint’s case, Natasha. “Yes?”

“I’d very much like to hug you before you go.”

Melinda May isn’t the kind of person who likes hugs. She stands up and nods anyway. Clint’s touch is firm, and his grip doesn’t make her feel trapped. He makes sure that she’s facing the security camera in the corner of the office before his fingers on her shoulder spell out, THANKS, in Morse code.

***

The lobby at the Hub is crowded, and also a place Melinda May wasn’t at all surprised to find out she didn’t miss. She doesn’t like having to come back, and from the look on his face, neither does Phil. FitzSimmons, on the other hand, are delighted. Their excited chatter with Skye carries up to May’s ears, and even without turning around she’s sure that Ward is listening and smiling as well. None of them is worried about why Victoria Hand called the team in, which just tells Melinda how clueless the little ducklings are about the power dynamics between Level 8 agents.

If anyone ever dares to remark on how she’s started to call the rest of the team little ducklings in her head, she’s breaking their kneecaps.

“Hey, Agent May!” Shane, one of the agents at the lobby’s front desk, is an old acquaintance. “We’ve got something for you.”

Which is, well, interesting, to say the least, since no one was supposed to know they were flying in. As Melinda stops in her tracks and makes a beeline for the desk, she can see Phil’s hands twitch at his sides. Phil’s tells have gotten increasingly obvious since – since New York, and what happened afterwards. Melinda wonders if she should be worried, or if anyone else should, then quickly dismisses the thought. It leaves a bitter flavor in her mouth all the same.

While she’s having her silent little crisis over her loyalty to Phil (which would be more amusing if it didn’t happen pretty much on a daily basis), Shane bends down to pick up a plate from below the desk. It’s covered with a purple paper napkin. Scrawled over it are the words, permission to share, if you want, followed by a smiley face.

Melinda peels back the napkin with a care she would deny under the threat of torture.

Meringues?” If disbelief were a liquid, Skye’s tone would be dripping with it right now. “Someone’s giving Agent Scary Badass meringues. Really.”

Melinda May smiles. “Of course. They’re delicious. Want one?” she answers as she turns back towards the team, shamelessly taking the first bite.

The look on Phil’s face is a blend of at least half a dozen different expressions. Every single one of them is worth it.